Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

TOP STORY > >Legislators set agenda

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Freshly minted state legislators and grizzled veterans interrupted Gov. Mike Beebe’s state of the state address with applause 30 times Tuesday in the House chamber as he laid out an ambitious plan to move Arkansas forward.

In a speech that lasted 53 minutes, Beebe laid out his vision to provide scholarships for students of every description at schools of all kinds; to greatly expand the scope and reach of health care, including a state-wide trauma system and in-home health care; to create a more skilled work force, and to expand the reach of human and child services.

He asked for a 56-cent a pack increase in cigarette taxes to fur ther fund health care, a $50 million fund to help attract new or expanding businesses and a rainy-day fund, all despite a troubled economy. On top of that, the governor said he wanted another penny taken off the remaining 2.87 percent sales tax on groceries.

Here’s what local lawmakers thought of the governor’s speech and proposals:

“I think it rates at the top of all those (state of the state speeches) I’ve heard,” said state Sen. John Paul Capps, D-Searcy, who has been listening to them since his first term during Gov. Orville Faubus’ administration.

“Some use soaring rhetoric, like Clinton, Bumpers and Huckabee,” said Capps. “This was a very eloquent speech, as good as any I’ve heard.”

He called it pragmatic, realistic and it addressed a keen vision.

“It wasn’t a pie-in-the-sky speech,” he said. “It’s obtainable, doable even in a recession, and it focuses on the needs of this state.”

Capps said the speech held no surprises for him, but it did address some things in more detail.

“He delivered it in a deliberate and forceful fashion and it was well-received,” he said.

“There are certain things we have to have in Arkansas and a good trauma network is absolutely necessary,” he said.

Capps, long interested in state roads and highways, said he was disappointed the governor didn’t include any transportation issues, but said with the proposed Obama stimulus package, help could still be on the way.

“He’s hoping we’ll get a pretty good basket of money,” Capps said.

“It’s the most comprehensive state of the state speech I’ve heard,” said a long-time Beebe friend, state Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle. “He wants to changes lives in Arkansas. He has the opportunity to be one of the greatest governors we’ve ever had.”

He had 10 or 15 standing ovations on everything he covered.

“He’s laid the plan out there, it’s just a matter of us going forth and doing it,” Glover said. “He says revenues are there to cover everything.”

“You couldn’t come up with a better thought-through plan than the one he presented.”

Glover, who is handling the grocery sales tax cut bill for the governor, says he’s already got the votes he needs in the Senate.

State Rep. Jane English, R-north Pulaski County, said she liked Beebe’s positive vision for the future.

English, who is particularly interested in economic development, said she supports his quick-acting closing fund.

“I don’t know if I’m all in favor of a tax on cigarettes if the trauma system is for everybody,” the first-term representative said.

English said she thought she’s be able to support most of the governor’s agenda.

Another first termer, Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, said, “I agree with his vision.” Perry said the governor’s attention to healthcare programs was a good sign. “It’s vital we have programs available for the people who need it,” said Perry, who sells insurance. “We’re still missing some. On senior side, dental insurance is one of biggest problems facing people on Medicare. A lot can’t afford it.”

Perry said he agreed with Beebe that “education and economic development go hand in hand.”

“He had a lot of good things to say,” said state Rep. Davy Carter, R-Cabot. “One issue I have is the raising the tax on cigarettes. I’m looking forward to debating that,” he said.

Carter said the cigarette tax was regressive and that it seemed illogical to try to educate people to stop smoking at the same time you’re taxing them to pay for health programs.

“I hope to see some alternative funding sources that I could support.”

Carter said he generally agrees with the governor’s focus on education and economic development but “the disagreement may be in the details.”

Just about 24 hours on the job, Carter said, “I’m looking forward to working with him and I’m proud to be here.”

“I’ve been so impressed both yesterday and today,” said state Rep. Walls McCrary of Lonoke. “His plan sounded good to me.

I’m impressed and encouraged.”

McCrary said that judging by the response the governor’s speech got, “I think he’ll have very little trouble getting his agenda through.”

McCrary said that everybody is for the trauma center, but it will require the 56-cent per pack tobacco tax, and “some lawmakers may not be 100 percent for that. “

“It’s a good way to raise the money to improve health and life. I don’t see a down side.”

He said the governor’s comments on broadening scholarships was well received.

Of his first day in office, McCrary said, “I thoroughly enjoyed it. It really is humbling, how it affects the lives of so many people.”

Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood, said he supported the notion of a statewide trauma system, but he had some concerns about creating a satellite medical school in Northwest Arkansas. Nickels said he’s want to be sure a Fayetteville medical school was not at the expense of the main UAMS medical school in Central Arkansas.

Nickels, a business professor at UALR, said he agreed that education was a top priority and he supported replenishing the governor’s $50 million quick-action closing fund to attract business to Arkansas.

He was less enthusiastic about a large rainy day fund, saying that appropriations were the prerogative of the legislative branch, not the executive branch.

He said that’s even truer with the constitutional amendment approved by voters in November authorizing and requiring annual legislative sessions.

He said he agreed with Beebe’s idea that the state needs to increase its college graduation rate.

He wants Arkansas to be on the right path.